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Shadowmarch by Tad Williams

Shadowmarch by Tad Williams
Book Name: Shadowmarch
Author: Tad Williams
Publisher(s): DAW (US) Orbit (UK)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: November 2, 2004 (US) November 4, 2004 (Uk)

This review’s been a long time coming. It’s almost a year to the day since a friend loaned me his copy of Shadowmarch and suggested I read it and, in a year where I’ve been averaging a book a week, it’s taken me almost a month to complete. It’s as if I’ve been avoiding the book, which – now I come to think of it – is exactly the case. Why? It’s all to do with Tad Williams’ first epic fantasy series Memory, Sorrow and Thorn.

That series kicked off with The Dragonbone Chair, which is one of the best books I’ve had the pleasure to read for Fantasy-Faction. I adored it and gave it top marks. I’ve reviewed plenty more of Tad’s books for the site, and all have been of a high standard, although never (in my opinion) equalling that first mighty tome. You see, on first inspection Shadowmarch felt like it might be a pale imitation of one of my favourite books, and I didn’t want to read a Tad Williams story I didn’t enjoy.

It took a while, but I grabbed Shadowmarch from my shelf and let its author transport me to the world of Eion, the scene set by an informative history that never outstays its welcome, before the story begins with an eerie prelude that introduces the otherworldly villains. So far, so good. Then, as I progressed through the first few chapters, the inevitable comparisons not only began, but completely dominated my opinion of what I was reading. There are evil elves living in icy northern wastes, a doctor who knows more than he seems, a prince with a withered arm, a friendly dwarf, the latter three living in a castle with a huge underground labyrinth, built centuries ago by those elves. With all those things and more reminding me of The Dragonbone Chair, such was my disappointment that I came close to giving up half way through.

After thinking it over and realising I was being incredibly harsh, I dipped my head back between the pages, focussing my attention on this book, rather than comparing it with others I’d read before. As I did so, something fell into place, and I began to enjoy the journey Williams was taking me on, reading the final third in one sitting, and reaching the end with a feeling of incredible satisfaction, despite my initial – and admittedly foolish – misgivings.

In Shadowmarch, Williams has delivered a story that may feel familiar in places, but is populated with characters that develop with each turn of the page, becoming people rather than simply their allotted roles within the society. He’s added in plenty of courtly intrigue and politics to keep readers guessing as to where certain loyalties lie, all wrapped up in a murder mystery package. Yet, this is a lot deeper than a ‘who killed the prince?’ story, thanks to the varying points of view we see these events through. As the Shadowline, the border between human and elven lands, extends down from the north, glimpses into a rival empire lying far to the south add to the sense of foreboding, forcing the inhabitants of Southmarch castle to put aside their differences and work together against the oncoming threat. It’s also incredibly atmospheric, never more so when soldiers are lost in the strange mists north of the Shadowline, finding themselves against unsettling opponents.

It’s Williams’ gift that, in a story packed with characters, none of them are superfluous, or exist simply to forward the plot. Rather, they are the story, events forcing them into actions and decisions they may later regret. Of all the characters here, it is Briony who grows the most, turning from near cliché princess to someone on the brink of becoming a leader. It’s telling that she is frowned upon for wearing men’s clothes, but must do so to be perceived as having the strength to command; it’s Briony’s courage in the face of almost overwhelming self-doubt that gives her the potential to become one of fantasy’s great heroines.

This has been the most difficult review I’ve had to write, as well as the most personal. Let me be clear: Shadowmarch is a very good book that introduces characters we grow to care deeply about, a story that not only ably sets up a series, but is gripping in its own right. I’m aware that may sound a contradiction based on my early feelings for the story, which is why I’ve took more time than normal to review and rate the book. My problem, if you can call it such, is that I read The Dragonbone Chair two years ago, while the gap in publication between it and Shadowmarch was 15 years, making the former much fresher in my mind. It does sound unfair, but if I’d given it a decade and a half, I’d likely have felt different, and scored a point or two higher; what I can do, though, is highly recommend Shadowmarch to fans of well-written epic fantasy.


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